Roan Mountain: Its Rhododendrons and Its Festivals
Homer Salley, Ed.D.
The 50th anniversary of two rhododendron festivals was celebrated June 19-22,1996 - yes, on the same dates but different locations. They were held on each of two sides on this large mountain: the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival at Roan Mountain State Park, Tenn., and the North Carolina Rhododendron Festival at Bakersville, N.C., 23 miles down the south approach. The entire mountain area is large enough to accommodate two festivals - 50 square miles, divided about equally between the states of North Carolina and Tennessee. The Appalachian Trail follows along the state borders as it crosses over the peak at 6,284 feet elevation. The Rhododendron Garden and Roan High Bluff both are on the North Carolina side of the border (4).
| The Grassy Ridge Trail up Roan Mountain with R. catawbiense in bloom.
Photo by Russell Gilkey
A few miles into western North Carolina is the Catawba River where in 1796 Andre Michaux found the rhododendron species he named catawbiense after the river. The river had been named for the Indian tribe that still dwells in that area; not only the river but a county and town are named "Catawba." On one side of Main Street in Bakersville stands a large state historical marker honoring this Frenchman sent here from France to collect plants to be grown in Paris; unfortunately most of his plants sent there were later destroyed in the French Revolution. Near his marker a major street was closed during the festival for exhibits, the trade show, and street dance. Perhaps few there remembered that the rhododendron species named catawbiense is a living memorial to this explorer and is still used by hybridizers to create some of the hardiest of all rhododendron hybrids for survival in very cold climates. Also the Waterer's nursery in England used this species, not for the sake of hardiness but to help create rhododendrons with flowers that bloom later in the season than most other rhododendron hybrids.
| In Bakersville, N.C., historical marker recognizes the botanical
contributions of André Michaux. In 1796 Michaux found
Rhododendron catawbiense near the Catawba River in western
North Carolina and named it after the Catawba River. Michaux
was sent from France to collect plants to be grown in Paris.
Photo by Homer Salley
Across the street from Michaux's marker in Bakersville is a marker honoring Dr. Asa Gray from Harvard, who came 50 years later to study the flora of this region. Dr. Gray's Manual of Botany is now in its eighth edition. I found no historical marker for John Fraser for whom the Fraser fir is named. Fraser explored the Roan perhaps as early as Michaux explored the Catawba River.1
| A historical marker in Bakersville, N.C., recognizes the
botanical contributions of Asa Gray. In the 1840s Asa Gray
followed in the footsteps of Michaux through the Appalachian
Mountains and collected what was later designated by
Alfred Rehder in the Rhodora of 1912 as the type specimen
of Rhododendron carolinianum, now R. minus var.
minus Carolinianum Group.
Photo by Homer Salley
At the Mitchell County Public Library, around the corner from Dr. Gray's marker, the North Carolina Rhododendron Festival was featured. One large room was given over to exhibits of documents relating to the 50-year festival history and its beauty pageant talent show that is part of the annual event. Also if you ask there to see a recently published book on rhododendrons you will be shown the third edition of Greer's Guidebook to Available Rhododendrons. Other related rhododendron information could be computer-accessed via the Internet, including the computer page about the festival in Bakersville.
These two festivals were once just one festival. The communities of Bakersville, N.C., and Roan Mountain Village, Tenn., worked together. The beauty contest was held on the top of the mountain, in the world famous natural garden amid 200 acres of blooming catawbiense. But the people of Bakersville felt a need to make money for expenses and for scholarships to the top-rated participants. The National Forest Service, which owns the mountain, does not permit money raising projects. So the pageant was moved from the Roan Mountain garden to the Bowman Middle School auditorium in Bakersville, where the eight contestants showed their talents as they performed both in evening dress and bathing suits! Some people of the Roan Mountain Village community will tell you they "liked it better the way it used to be." Two tickets of admission with a copy of the program for the Queen's Pageant, at the 50th Anniversary North Carolina Rhododendron Festival, on June 22, 1996, cost $18. There were two other nights with admission charges: one event for the Junior Queen Competition and one for the former queens who returned to join the celebration of the 50th anniversary.
| At the North Carolina Rhododendron Festival Beauty Pageant
winner Shannon Caldwell is presented with a
bouquet of Rhododendron catawbiense.
Photo by Sally Salley
The Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival runs in the Roan Mountain State Park, on the north side of the mountain with a talent show sponsored by the Citizens Club. The Young People's Talent Search runs on Friday and Saturday nights. During the day in the amphitheater of the park the U.S. Air Force Band played and other musical events were staged; the exhibit stalls (90) were busy with displays and sales of local (and regional) crafts of needlework, woodwork, flowers, garden plants and photographs of nature scenes. Vendors must sign a contract with the state of Tennessee in order to sell on state property.
I did not find rhododendrons for sale at the festival, but they were available in the village. Remember this was the third weekend of June. Most rhododendrons in commerce had already flowered at the lower elevations. A garden shop manager said he could sell rhododendrons only when they were in flower.
The sponsors of the festivals were not too hard to find. In the Roan Mountain State Park the management was done by members of the Roan Mountain Citizens Club and Mr. and Mrs. Allen Jenkins. In Bakersville the Rhododendron Festival Association was named and the work was done by volunteers and the Lions Club. The long-tenured and talented master of ceremonies at the Queen's Pageant was Robert Hensley, who seemed to follow the rules of the Miss America contest. The promotional material was distributed by the Chamber of Commerce; the colorful page on the World Wide Web of the Internet listed sponsors as the Bakersville Lions Club and the Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce. Was there a member of the American Rhododendron Society participating? Yes, I was there taking slides!
Dr. Russell Gilkey, a member of the ARS in Kingsport, Tenn., reviewed this report at my request. He said it told him more than he ever knew before about the rhododendron festivals, which he had never attended. His practice is to take a picnic lunch and spend time on the Roan "in peace and quiet." He suggested I should mention a close rival in cold hardiness, R. brachycarpum ssp. tigerstedtii, which is also used by modern rhododendron hybridizers.
| The author and R. catawbiense on Roan Mountain.
Photo by Sally Salley
Another suggestion was to mention the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy which holds its annual meeting in mid June at Crossnore, N.C., near the Roan. I attended that meeting the last two years and joined the hike on the mountain each time led by naturalist Ed Schell of Johnson City, Tenn. There were at least 10 ARS members there representing at least four different chapters. The aim of the SAHC is to obtain legal protective covenants on lands above the level of 3,500 feet elevation so there are not more developments like the condominium built atop Sugar Mountain that is an eyesore from many miles and in all directions (2).
How is it the festivals are rhododendron festivals? The timing is right. The dates selected are always the same as the expected peak for the millions of flowers that open in the 200-acre Rhododendron Garden by the parking lots near the top of Roan Mountain. You don't have to walk far there to count cars from at least 25 different states. A visitor said she didn't come to see the flowers. She had them at home. She came to see all the new cars! The state of Tennessee counts the tourists! The published boast is that the area has over 200,000 visitors annually. You hear on the radio, "Be nice to our tourists; they are very nice to us!"
Many different businesses and groups are named "rhododendron" something. In the village is a funeral home named "Rhododendron Chapel," and others are: Rhododendron Fire Control Area, Rhododendron Street Dance, Rhododendron Antique Car Show, Rhododendron Crafts Exhibits and Rhododendron Antiques and Gifts. But the bike race was called the "Roan Groan" (registration $20).
My wife and I want to go again. We'd like to see more of Grandfather Mountain, which is privately owned ($9 admission charge), Mount Mitchell, the Blue Ridge Parkway and more waterfalls in North Carolina. These places all have rhododendrons in bloom much of the spring and summer, depending on the elevation above sea level.
Location: Eastern Tennessee and northwest North Carolina in Cherokee and Pisgah national forests. Roan Mountain proper encompasses a total of 12 square miles.
Approach: Highway 19E from Elizabethton, then Highway 143 to Roan Mountain.
Elevation: 6,285 feet above sea level at the Rhododendron Garden.
Appalachian Trail: crosses the mountain for 12 miles.
Rhododendron Garden: about 600 acres. Peak blooming season is usually around June 17-22.
"Balds": grassy but treeless areas.
Roan Mountain State Park: Tel: 615-772-3303; 615-772-3314; large campground, first come, first served; 20 cabins reservations only.
Contributors to this report are: Russell Gilkey, Robert Hensley, Ed Schell, Robert L. Schwind and the Roan Mountain Citizens Club.
1. Barron, D. The Rhododendron Festival Home Page. http://www.midnet.sc.edu/dan/rhodo.htm.
2. Gable, J. And make the mountains glad. J. Amer. Rhod. Soc. 42:210-213; 1988.
3. Michaux, A. Flora boreali Americana; 1803.
4. Wilson, Jennifer. Roan Mountain: a passage of time. Winston-Salem, N.C.: John Blair Publisher; 1991.
1 Although English plant explorer John Fraser is sometimes credited for having discovered the species Rhododendron catawbiense on the peak of Roan Mountain, Carter County, Tenn., (see article "Rhododendron catawbiense f. insularis" by Robert L. Schwind in the Fall 1996 issue), Andre Michaux first collected the species in 1796. Fraser is believed to have introduced it to the nursery trade.
Dr. Salley, a member of the Blue Grass Chapter, is co-author of Rhododendron Hybrids and author of Rhododendron and Azalea Research: A Database of 1800 Citations and Brief Abstracts.